Historian and author Sr. M. Doria Schlickman
Interview: Heinrich Brehm, PressOffice Schönstatt
The publication of an article in a Catholic weekly newspaper in Germany brought up events from the 1950s that put both the founder of Schoenstatt and the community of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary in a bad light. www.schoenstatt.de asked Sister M. Doria Schlickmann, author of several books about Father Josef Kentenich and a renowned expert on the history of Schoenstatt, to shed some light on the matter with some answers.
Sister Doria, the aforementioned article speaks of the fact that Father Kentenich was referred to as “Father”, “the Founder with absolute power, who is often equated with God, so much so that in many expressions and prayers it is not clearly understood whether they are addressed to God the Father or to the Founder himself.” Is this true? How do you explain this mixing up of God the Father and the Founder?
Ultimately, prayers can only be addressed to God. The experience of human transparencies of God’s love can make these prayers even more vivid and heartfelt. The word “father” for the founder is not unusual. Many communities also call their founder father. For many people, their image of God changed after they met Father Kentenich. With him it was also somehow surprising that men, young people, and married couples – without external stimulation and independently of one another – suddenly felt the need to call him father. This never was and is still never understood as competition with God.
How would you describe the relationship of the Sisters of Mary with Father Kentenich? How does he live in their community?
He is the founder, to whom the community owes its original character and – as one Pope once said – “its strong spirituality”. He has made unusual sacrifices for this community, not only in the willingness to lay down his life for it in Dachau, but also in the giving of his honor during and around the exile. The Visitator and the Holy Office wanted to completely separate the founder from the foundation. Perhaps this long-standing attempt even intensified the bond with the Founder. For us it is self-evident that he remained our spiritual father in eternity. He lives in our community through his rich spiritual heritage and we have a living experience of his intercessory power. For me he is a great example for the way I live my life: in his devotion to God and his great love for mankind. I am always impressed by his pedagogy and psychological empathy. It fascinates me how a person can inwardly take in, affirm and promote the most diverse kinds and types.
Father Kentenich was convinced that in order to develop their personality, people need strong attachments. What does attachment to a person do? Does it make him strong or does it render him weak? And how do the notes of the Visitator Sebastian Tromp SJ, who noted “that among the priests and the Sisters of Mary there are few secure personalities who have independent thinking and interior freedom”, fit in with this?
Basically, a healthy human bond is what makes strong, if it doesn’t degenerate into a blind dependence. Every child who knows that he or she is originally loved by his or her parents develops his or her personality, becomes strong, self-confident and gains a positive attitude towards life. However, this presupposes that parents, educators, those who bear the main responsibility in the bond are selfless, precisely because they are in some way an authority. A woman, it seems to me, is particularly sensitive to whether someone is selfless or wants something for himself, a women’s community even more so. A fellow Sister who worked for decades with the Founder once told me: “If we had felt the slightest trace in this direction (selfishness) with him (Father Kentenich), we would have withdrawn immediately.” What I was able to observe and research for decades was that many strong and inwardly free personalities in all the Schoenstatt communities have matured from the attachment to Father Kentenich, and it seems to me that they are still there today. For a number of these holy models in the history of Schoenstatt, the beatification processes are already underway in various countries.
Father Tromp may not have noticed that he frightened some Sisters very much by his authoritarian approach. The Sisters were not accustomed to such a style from the side of Father Kentenich. Moreover, the Visitator had already been adversely influenced against Father Kentenich in advance by a few Sisters of Mary, including our first Superior General. What Father Tromp did not see through or could not see through was that this Superior General saw the founder as a competition early on.
She meticulously collected unfavorable statements against him and sent them to the Visitator. You will find all this in more detail in my biography.
Father Tromp’s judgement that all the other Sisters and Fathers who disagreed with him were weak, insecure, and not independent in their thinking is, in my opinion, quite a misjudgment, which I explain to myself by the fact that he had no experience whatsoever with pastoral care for women. He was certainly an excellent professor of dogmatics, but here he was confronted with a completely different field. The history, expansion and development of the Schoenstatt Work throughout the world, which was carried independently by still young Sisters of Mary in foreign countries, proves the opposite.
Father Kentenich was sent into exile by the Church. What reasons did the Holy Office give to Father Kentenich and to the Schoenstatt Family?
I would remind you that it was not a practice of the HO, before Vatican II, to give reasons. In the most diverse decrees only the provisions are to be found. Likewise, the leaders in Schoenstatt did not know any reasons. Father General Turowski, during his term of office as General of the Pallottine Fathers, had asked several times about the reasons for Father Kentenich’s dismissal and exile, but to my knowledge, he had not received an answer.
Gradually, in the following years, rumors seeped through, more and more slanders became audible, fantasy lies that accused the founder of moral dishonesty. After about ten years of exile, Father Kentenich knew about all these accusations. When he therefore repeatedly asked for a legal trial against him, in order to be able to defend himself against the accusations and ever new suspicions, it was interpreted to him as disobedience. For this reason, in the early 1960s, he wrote a detailed statement regarding his person, but it was sent back to him unread. He should keep silent and carry his cross patiently. He was not given an opportunity to defend himself.
In another article, the author presents in a very derogatory way the religious practice of the child’s exam, which plays a role in your community. How is this rite to be understood and what is its meaning? Is it still practiced today?
Father Kentenich was always concerned with a vital, personal relationship with God and with the central core of our spirituality: being a child before God. The questions of the so-called child’s examination refer to our relationship with God as a child of God. That is why it uses the term “child,” and not “daughter”. Who do we belong to? God. What may God do with us? Anything! What are we before him? A little nothing, actually, and therefore his everything. This is a motif that runs through the entire history of Christian spirituality. God’s love for us is incomprehensibly great and personal, not simply a general reality. across the board. The word Father makes devotion to God personal, just as Jesus speaks to the Father in John’s Gospel: Just Father, … Beloved Father … and many other passages. It is a fundamentally personal conversation with the Father.
This devotion could find a concrete expression in the form of a question and answer dialogue with the founder. It had simply grown from life. But it is by no means a general custom or regularly recurring rite that every sister practiced or even had to practice. This was and is a free decision of the respective sister.
If a sister wishes, she can express this to the highest superiors of the community. But God is always the last addressee. Otherwise the whole thing would be an unworthy game. As it was presented in the publication, it is completely distorted.
And what about the question: To whom does the breast belong?
This is also very distorted and incorrectly reproduced in the media. Everyone who reads this must think: That is absurd!
This question related to a single case. The sister had a pronounced anxiety disorder with regard to her physical appearance and therefore convulsively tried to hide her feminine forms as far as possible. It must be remembered that the upbringing of religious girls at this time often led to sexual inhibition and prudery. Fr. Kentenich clearly made her aware of her obsession and wanted to free her from this compulsion. He made it clear to her that she is accepted by God just as she is.
The newspaper article describes your community from the point of view of the Visitator. How did the sisters experience the Visitator? What kind of person was he? How did he affect the sisters? What did the respective sisters say about him and his manner? How many sisters had he actually personally experienced and spoken to?
As the archive documents of our chronicle show, he became more than angry whenever a sister expressed a different opinion than he wanted to hear. He reacted in a violent and unrestrained manner, arbitrarily punished sisters and priests who contradicted him, decided on the smallest matters of the sisters and wanted to force them to take vows. He arranged everything in a way that the community was not used to at all. Most of the sisters and priests were not intimidated by him, and they expressed their opinions to him independently and courageously, even if they had many disadvantages.
What can the Schoenstatt Movement do now? How do you interpret this current process? What should Schoenstatt learn from it?
First of all, I believe that the misinterpretations and false accusations against Father Kentenich that have now been published almost force us to bring to light the injustice that Father Kentenich suffered over decades. Yes, what should Schoenstatt learn from this? Perhaps that it is not always advisable to be nobly silent.